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adoption-picnic

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Vanessa McGrady’s posting, The Birth Parents Move in, in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, both broke my heart and cracked me up. As I sat at my computer (ok, maybe I was in the loo looking at my iphone, it was 2 weeks ago, I can’t remember) reading the posting, I recognized myself in her writing. I voiced an inner “oh god” reading the first paragraph where she loaded her child’s birth parents into her car to rescue them from homelessness, their rabbit cage and all. Oh god, that’s not a good idea, oh god, I could totally see myself doing that, oh god, my therapist would think all her work was for naught if I did that, oh god, my kids would be so excited if their birth families moved in, oh god, bunnies stink. Oh god, Ms. McGrady sure summed up the complexity of adoption in just a few short light-hearted paragraphs.

I can relate to Ms. McGrady’s desire to help her daughter’s birth parents, to swoop in and lift them up. I have felt this same tug when I hear of setbacks, or unexpected turns in the road, for my daughter’s birth family members. In the past I have helped on a few occasions, none that involved a bunny moving in, and sometimes it worked out well and other times; the assistance was awkwardly given and uncomfortably received. In our open adoptions, I often come up against the complexities of family, fairness, justice, opportunity, love, privilege, loss, power, judgment and suffering when I feel the urge to help, especially when it isn’t asked for. Our adoption constellation is complex and even a simple thing like lending a hand requires deep consideration and reflection. However, I have come to accept that the greatest help I can give my daughter’s birth parents is to love, care for, and raise my daughters well, to become kind, loving, healthy and happy women.

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“Do you think you’ll be able to love a kid that’s not yours?” “Do you ever wish you had a child of your own?” “Do you know who K’s real mother is?”

Questions like those once had tremendous power over me.   They had the power to sting.  They had the power to make me feel less than.  But, they don’t have power any more.  You see, I became a real mother over 15 years ago to a child who is every bit my own.

I was real when the delivery nurse placed a newborn baby in my arms.  I was real when I walked out into the California sunshine with my girl.  I was terrified, but I was real.  I was real when relief rushed over me the next morning because M and I had managed to keep K alive for an entire day.  Real, when the terror returned and I realized I had to keep her alive for every day of my life.

K was mine when nightmares sent her climbing into my bed because sleeping next to me was the only thing that made the bad dreams go away.  She was mine each time she ran into my arms when I picked her up from school.  She was mine when she held me after my mother died and said “Mommy, what will I do if you die?”

It’s been a long time since I thought about any of those questions.  Why think about things that have no power?  But last week, we spent  two nights with K in the ER.  She’s fine, thanks, but those were a couple of exhausting, scary nights.  There were moments when I had to force myself not to cry.  I had to listen to the doctors and pretend not to be afraid.

In the midst of it all, I heard that question from long ago – “Do you ever wish you had a child of your own?”   And my mind repeated the answer that I’ve known for every day of K’s life – I have a child of my own and she is everything I ever wished for.

katie and mom communion

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I was thinking about Dad today.  Yes, Father’s Day is this weekend but that’s not what brought him to mind. It was actually a Mother’s Day memory that made me think of him.  One Mother’s Day, my sisters and I had created a really special gift for Mom.  We bought her a ceramic basket and placed maybe 100 small pieces of paper in it.  On each piece of paper we wrote something special about her.  We gave her the basket and we took turns reading each one aloud.

Dad listened attentively at first.  They were great memories and let’s face it; it was a pretty thoughtful gift.  I imagine he enjoyed the stories and was probably proud of his daughters for coming up with the idea (which I think we stole from a magazine but still).  After a while though, he started interrupting us.  “Hey, I was part of that too” or “There are two parents in this family” etc.  Laughing, we kept telling him, “Dad, it’s not your basket.”   He didn’t think it was nearly as funny as we did, but he finally stopped interrupting us and let us finish.

Of course when Father’s Day rolled around that year, we did something similar for him.  After his reaction, we had to.  If there was anyone Dad would play second fiddle to, it was definitely Mom.  But overall, that position was not his favorite spot in the band.

Truth be told, maybe we gave Mom credit for more stuff than we should have.  She was the gold standard of mothers so it was easy to do.  There’s the physical stuff – we credit her for all the blue eyes in the family, but Dad’s eyes were blue too.  I started wearing glasses in third grade so mine were certainly courtesy of Dad.  And there’s the non-physical stuff – I think Dad gave my brothers their work ethic, my younger sister her strong sense of justice, and my older sister, her all around goodness.  His sense of right and wrong was a force to be reckoned with, and he passed that on to all of us.

When I look at K, it is her birth mother to whom I give thanks.  A’s choices brought K to us and I will never forget that.  But yet… I don’t remember A having sapphire blue eyes.  K’s eyes are unforgettable.  If A’s were like that, I know I’d remember.  And it’s not just the stunning blue color; it’s the sparkle behind them that’s remarkable.  I wonder if those are a gift from her birth father.  What about K’s ability to remember the directions to anywhere she’s ever been?  Or her innate ability to reach out to someone who’s lonely or sad?  Those may have come from him.  I’ve just never really thought much about it before.  Huh…  It may not have been his basket but he was part of it too.

So, on this Father’s Day, I will remember all the wonderful fathers I have known, like I always do.  But for the first time, I will remember a particular high school boy who is now a grown man.  I will think of him, and I will thank him for whatever he gave that made my girl the incredible person she is.

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We tell a lot of stories in our family. Most of them are true, some are not. My girls fight to recognize when their dad is telling a true story, and when he’s just making up a fantastical fiction for them to enjoy. The girls still seem confused as to whether or not their dad rode a dinosaur to school when he was young. They seem better at guessing my truths and bluffs. I am not sure why, but it could be because I am the one who tells the stories with the hard truths and absolute facts (as I know them to be).

I often feel like I’m a witness in our own family court, and my girls are the determined lawyers wrangling the truth out of my testimony, in every last detail.  I find it hard to separate the facts that I know, the feelings I have, the hunches, and assumptions which I have made over the years.

The girls especially love the stories where their dad or I (usually me) did something dangerous, or flat our stupid as kids. They love to hear how we got in trouble, ended up in the ER, or got sent to our rooms for what seemed like eons.  One of their favorite stories is about the time I went off a jump on my bike and wiped out so hard that I ended up in the ER covered head to toe in bruises and scrapes.  First, the story was loved due to the danger, blood, and guts (and that I didn’t have a helmet on!). Next, they loved hearing how embarrassed I was going to camp the next day, looking like a zombie fresh from the grave. Lately, they have fixated on the part when the nurses grilled me about what “really happened,” as they didn’t believe that my injuries were caused solely by my daredevil 9-year-old self.

I’ve told the girls this silly story (complete with viewing of the scars I still bear from that day) many times. It started for me as a cautionary tale about the need to wear helmets and to ride bikes safely, but it has morphed into many other tales according to the girls’ curiosity, and interest about the topic, players, setting, or plot of that fateful day.  This story is an easy one for me to tell as it only involved me being a dumb kid, trying to show off to a bunch of my neighborhood friends.  Thankfully, no permanent harm was done, no lives were lost, and the course of my life was not forever altered.  The same cannot be said of all our family stories.

Our family stories, like the stories of any family I imagine, contain the joys, hopes and great loves of our family members. Our stories also contain the sorrows, fears, anger, and immense loss, which are the inherited lessons from our families of origin.  We each have a birth story, we each have family who love us, and cherish us. The paths that brought the four of us together, to form our family, have taken many turns, some not of our own control, and have had joys and sorrows, love and loss along the way. These stories of love and loss, joy and sorrow, I tell like the bicycle story, focusing on the girls’ curiosity and interest. I want the girls to recognize themselves in our stories, and to see their role in our family reflected through the routes we’ve taken and the adventures we had.   Hopefully, one day my girls will tell their own stories (hopefully with a helmet on) about their lives, and be able to understand the deep, meaningful connection that our family stories have to their sense of self, and belonging, in their own family.

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Fifteen years ago, on Valentine’s Day, K’s birth mother chose us.

She picked us from our “Dear Birth Mother” brochure.  I can’t remember what the proper name for the document actually was.  It may in fact have been brochure.  I know that’s what M and I called it.  It was a booklet of text and pictures  shown to potential birth mothers to help them decide if we were the right family for their baby.

I remember agonizing over its creation, trying to select the perfect pictures and just the right words.  Not to mention the sheer difficulty of putting it all together in the era before digital pictures.  We made fifty copies and waited.

While we waited, we went to pre-adoptive parent education classes.  At first, my favorite part of the class was when new families brought their new baby/child and told the story of how they became a family.  “That’s going to be us some day,” I’d think.

But not a single one of the first fifty potential birth mothers expressed any interest in us.   We regrouped.  We took a vacation to San Francisco.  We changed our picture on the brochure cover and made some more copies.  I didn’t love the babies coming to class as much.  As much as I hate to admit it, as much as it makes me seem petty and small, I couldn’t help but think “why them and not us?”

Until Valentine’s Day, 1998, when she chose us.  She liked our picture on the cover.  She said we looked nice.  We talked on the phone and we emailed.  She got to know us better and still thought we were nice.  Two months later K was born and we became a family.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think of K’s birth mother and thank her for that.

And on the fifteen anniversary of my very best Valentine’s Day, I also give thanks to all the women who didn’t choose us.  I was once told, “The soul of the child that was meant to be yours will find you.”  I don’t know if that’s always true but I know my child found me.  She just needed me to wait for her.

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In a few weeks, I am going to attend a presentation on genealogy.  I have always wondered where my ancestors came from, what did they do for a living, and the overarching interest in finding out what tie there is between who I am now and my past.  I have been blessed to have had the benefit of grandparents who lived until their 80’s and 90’s and my husband’s dad is in his 90’s.  We have had conversations and learned of some of our family history but it isn’t enough.  I want to learn more.

However, this raises many feelings about what happens when my son and daughter start having similar interests.  We have some basic history on their birth parents…..on birth mom’s side, we know that there is a sister who, too, was adopted and now lives in California, a brother down in Texas, and a sister in Florida.  Our twins also have three nephews…one lives with his great-grandmother in Kentucky, one was placed with an adoptive family and the other lives with his mother (Bruiser & Princess’ sister).  We know that their birth mom lived in Las Vegas as of a year ago.  Their birth dad is a merchant marine based out of Florida and he has a son, who, also, calls Florida home.  Most of our twins’ birth family is geographically spread out and moves quite a bit.

I realize that the whole genealogy thing is hard for everyone……..constantly going down paths that lead to dead ends….but then one little piece of the puzzle connects to another, and another to yet another and so on.  I wonder when my twins will have the curiosity to seek out their genealogy.  Will it be in 10 years………will it be later?  What will their genealogy tree look like?

Far more complicated than ours……….but no less important and vital to their understanding of who they are.

Bruiser –you are my son.  Princess – you are my daughter.

Although you were not born from my belly,

Although your family tree will have a few more branches on it,

Although the roots may be a distance apart,

Our leaves reach up to the same sky, seek the same sunshine, and breathe the same air.

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We’ve booked the flights and make the hotel reservations.  We’re off to California in February.  No, it’s not another trip to Napa for M and me, although that does sound delightful.  This time, the three of us will be heading to San Diego.

We’ll be staying in the same hotel from our last visit, the trip when K was born.  We’ll be doing a lot of the things we did the last time – Sea World, San Diego Zoo, the beach – and yes, we realize now those things are way more appropriate for a 14 year old than a newborn.    What can I say?  We were 3000 miles away from family and friends.  We did the best we could, and we all survived.  I consider that a success.

K isn’t sure if she wants to see the hospital, but as with most everything on this trip, it’s her call.  Honestly, I’m not sure I want to see it either.  Yes, I clearly remember walking out of that hospital with the world’s greatest gift.  Yet I can never forget the girl, not much older than my K is now, who walked out with nothing.  But, if K wants to go, we go.  This is her trip, not mine.

We almost went last year but then the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in Orlando and that took precedence over San Diego.  That decision sums up the place adoption holds in our lives now.  K determines its frequency and importance and we respond accordingly.  We’re a long way from the days when I obsessed over how to respond to people who told me K looked like me.  Should I respond immediately that K was adopted?  Should I wait til I get to know them better?  Is a simple “thank you” appropriate?

Adoption is the way K joined our family.  Although we are forever thankful for that, it does not define us.  We will visit her birthplace and we will remember those terrified thirty-somethings who had waited forever and then become parents overnight.  We will remember waking up in the hotel each morning relieved we had kept K alive for one more day.  We will remember the flight back home with a two-week old.  And we will remember how we become the awesome family that we are.

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The other morning, my youngest and I were in the girls’ bathroom getting her ready for the day. I dabbed toothpaste on her snoopy toothbrush and handed it to her. My youngest then jabbed the toothbrush around in her mouth until it was full of suds, drooled the suds out into the sink, wiped her face on the hand towel, and smiled a big toothy smile at herself in the mirror. Next, I reached back into the closet, and grabbed a green polka-dotted washcloth, ran it under the not-too-hot water, and rubbed it across her face, cleaning off the sleepies, the leftover oatmeal, and the dribbled toothpaste smudge on her chin. As my youngest’s face was revealed to her in the mirror again, she looked at me through the reflection, and said in a very matter of fact tone, “Why doesn’t the brown come off?”

I replied out loud to my daughter, back though my reflection, “that’s a great question!” Then I started to talk about melanin,  skin cells, genetics, and, then, without hearing a word, she ran off to get her lovely tucked into bed, or “school,” as she calls it.

I have spent a good amount of time, since that morning, mulling over my daughter’s question, and my response. I’ve responded in my head to my daughter over, and over, changing my response depending on the weight of the meaning I placed on her words. I thought deeply about how we approach skin color, race, differences, and our multiracial family. I wondered, have I read anything new about children adopted trans-racially  Have I done enough to feed my daughter’s self-image and self-esteem so it can grow strong and beautiful?

I took a moment to look at our family, neighborhood, and community through my daughter’s eyes. Does she see her beautiful brown face reflected back to her through her teachers (no), in her classmates (some), in her neighborhood (a bit), in our church (yes), in her family (no), in her birth family (yes)?

My husband and I feel that having an open relationship with our daughter’s family, positively impacts our family as a whole, but also gives our youngest a direct, and authentic tie to her family, and culture of origin.  In our family our daughter sees her reflection, of her image, in her birth mother, of her heart, in her adoptive parents. Together, I have confidence that we will lift up our daughter to see her own image, of a strong and beautiful young girl, with a lovely brown face.

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When I turned 28 I decided if I wasn’t married by the time I turned 35, I would adopt children. 35, single, and wanting to be a mother, I started to go to informational sessions at different agencies. Since I had my own business and had to work, I was looking to adopt a young child who could go to school instead of an infant.  I also wanted to adopt siblings so I asked a woman at one of the organizations if the fee charged was higher.  Her reply, “Yes, if the children are desirable,” broke my heart.  Every child is desirable and deserves a home. Some agencies made me feel undesirable since children “deserved” two parents. Undaunted, I kept going until I found a place that accepted and respected me.

I met with a social worker who did my home study. Contrary to what many people experience, I loved the process. It helped me clarify what problems I felt prepared to handle and which children might be a good fit for me.  The social worker also held group sessions with other prospective adoptive parents and that was very helpful, too. They made me feel more prepared to be a mother.

I went to adoption events and was bombarded by social workers who saw me as a desirable match for some of the available children.  I was glad my home study helped me clarify what I could and could not handle so I could set appropriate boundaries. One day my social worker called and told me there was a seven year old boy I might want to consider. I came to the agency to learn about him and felt she was right. I agreed to meet him only after I had decided to adopt him. I did not want him to feel he was auditioning. I knew he had a lot of issues but I felt I could handle them.

The afternoon I met him I came home and decided to eat a bagel for dinner. In my excitement, I sliced my finger and had to go to the emergency room for stitches. Imagine how embarrassed I was when I told the doctor it happened while I was cutting a bagel.  It was even worse when I admitted it was a fresh bagel not hard or frozen.  At least he and the nurse got a laugh out of it!

For the next month, I spent more time with my soon-to-be-son. We went to McDonald’s.  He spent a night at my house.  It all seemed too easy until the last visit before he moved in with me permanently.  We went to Kmart to buy him a coming-home shirt. When we got there, he said he wanted a toy not a shirt. I told him it was a shirt buying trip not a toy buying trip.  He sat down in an aisle and refused to move. After half an hour of discussion, I told him we were leaving. He said he was going to stay and live in Kmart. I told him even if he really wanted to; people were not allowed to live in Kmart.

I grabbed his hands and he got up pretty easily. I led him out of the store while he screamed.  When we got to the car, he pulled his jacket over his head. I buckled him in and we sat there while I talked. I asked him if he was afraid of coming to live with me.  I told him I was scared, too, because I hadn’t been a mother before. After about 10 minutes, the jacket came off over his head and he said,” Okay, let’s go.” I guess he wanted me to see the worst before he moved in.

During that month of visiting, he directly and indirectly told me everything he was worried about. I decided when I brought him home I would use that information when we walked into the house together, but that is another story. To be continued…

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